Oakland man claims a Picasso: Grandmother's painting now worth $10 million was looted by Nazis

San Francisco Chronicle 27 December 2002
Nanette Asimov

The year was 1938 or '39. Like many Jews, Carlota Landsberg knew it was time to leave Berlin. In preparation for her escape from the Nazis, the widow sent her prized Picasso to a Paris art dealer for safekeeping.
Then she fled.

Nearly 65 years later, the Picasso has surfaced. And with a potential value of more than $10 million, the 1922 painting is the subject of a legal battle in California between Landsberg's grandson, who is a UC Berkeley law school student, and a Chicago widow who says "Femme en Blanc" belongs to her.

After Carlota Landsberg escaped the Nazis, it was 20 years before she and the Paris art dealer found each other again. In a 1958 letter, he told Landsberg that the entire contents of his gallery -- including her painting -- had been stolen during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

And there the tale might have ended had the world been willing to forget about property looted by the Nazis -- particularly valuable works of art. But lists were made, and eyes kept watch.

Decades passed. Then one year ago, "Femme en Blanc" -- depicting a woman in whites and grays as melancholy as the painting's history -- turned up in Paris.

It had been brought to France for possible sale. The would-be buyer contacted the London office of the Art Loss Register, a vast database of lost and stolen art. The painting, also known as "Femme Assise," was on its list of looted works. Its owner, Carlota Landsberg, was also named.

"We found where Mrs. Landsberg resided in New York," said Anna Kisluk, director of art services at the Manhattan branch of the Art Loss Register.

But Landsberg had died in 1994. A receptionist at her residence hotel remembered that a grandson, Tom Bennigson, had visited her and agreed to contact him. Bennigson lived in Oakland and studied law at UC Berkeley.

Bennigson knew nothing of his grandmother's painting and didn't know that she had apparently tried several times over the years to find it.

For a time, as it turned out, Landsberg and "Femme en Blanc" had been just blocks away from each other in New York.

Then in 1975, James Alsdorf of Chicago bought the painting from the Stephen Hahn Gallery in Manhattan for $375,000. He brought it home, where the painting remained until last year.

After Alsdorf died, his widow, Marilyn Alsdorf, hoped to sell the painting. She placed it with David Tunkl, a Los Angeles art dealer.

It was Tunkl who brought "Femme en Blanc" to Paris last year, then took it back to Los Angeles when it was found to be on the Art Loss Register's list.

Art experts regard "Femme en Blanc" as an example of Picasso's neoclassicism but not one of his great works.
Yet, Alsdorf believes the work is hers to keep or sell.

Bennigson, who is Landsberg's only heir, says the painting is his. For much of 2002, the two sides tried to settle the issue out of court.

On Dec. 18, as those talks broke down, Tunkl sent the painting back to Chicago.

On Dec. 19, Bennigson sued Alsdorf and Tunkl in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that they sent "Femme en Blanc" to Illinois to avoid a California law to take effect Jan. 1, 2003. It extends the statute of limitations for claims against galleries for the recovery of art looted by the Nazis until Dec. 31, 2010.

In the suit, Bennigson asks for the return of his grandmother's painting, or $10 million.
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